Monday, 7 September 2015

Moseley Folk Festival - Birmingham. Saturday 5th to Sunday 6th September 2015

There is surely no finer boutique festival setting or set up than the delight the organisers of Moseley Folk serve up to the good people of Birmingham each September. In fact the operation has just celebrated its tenth birthday and yet another eclectic mix of genre stretching artists was assembled in the marvellous surrounds of the privately operated Moseley Park. The perpetual sounds from two closely aligned stages ensure a seamless stream of good music for nearly twelve hours each day with the added delight for hardened fans to catch every act on the bill live. This luscious tree lined amphitheatre setting, with only the brace of stages preventing you tumbling into the Black Swan populated pool, proves the perfect backdrop to some of the cream of the English folk scene alongside several surprise inclusions.

Outside commitments prevented attendance on the Friday of this year’s festival which saw Spiritualised headlining and local acclaimed act Scott Matthews a late addition to the line-up. Despite a similar commitment doing the same to Saturday’s stage headlining bands Idlewild and Merrylees, it is a pleasure to present a complimentary report of many of the artists witnessed over the weekend. There were a number of ‘must see’ performers on show this year as well as the usual surprises. Overall the quality was mainly immaculate ranging from your solo singer-songwriter owning the limelight for thirty minutes to a fuller assembly of musicians raising the sound to crescendo levels.

With a polite nod to the creaking and depleted Monkees, the vibes of Gaz Coombes more suitable to other ears and a theatrical anthem fuelled exhibition from fourteen white cloak clad Texans under the name of The Polyphonic Spree, this review will focus on the ten most enjoyed sets that lit the festival up in the eyes and ears of this beholder. So in no particular order here are the artists that made the cut.

If there was such a thing as the hangover slot, then by opening the smaller Lunar Stage on Sunday morning Scottish singer-songwriter Aaron Fyfe provided the kill or cure remedy. With a string of folk songs delivered in true Glaswegian style and a stray into occasional choice language for a family environment, Aaron made sure everybody in the vicinity knew he was there and to say a profound effect was forthcoming is an understatement. There’s no such thing as kicking a festival into life too soon and Aaron played his part in rousing the early arrivals out of any slumber.

The Unthanks are one of the most highly acclaimed performers on the folk scene and their spectacularly moving ten piece show made the Sunday headline tea time slot a sheer joy to be in listening range. To be more precise, this set was viewed close at hand and there was probably no more stunning moment on the festival fields this summer than listening to Rachel and Becky melt the heart of folks with their version of ‘Magpie’. Everything about the show from the sisters’ clog dancing, the beautiful orchestral arrangements, the celebrated trumpet solos and the sumptuous harmonies was blissful and praise for The Unthanks couldn’t be any higher from these quarters.

Mirroring The Unthanks on the five o’clock Saturday slot was US folk rockers Dawes who have been wooing UK and European audiences for the last week, since their salivating headline slot at nearby Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Although their set was trimmed by fifteen minutes this time to fit into the hour, Taylor Goldsmith and the boys were still in an incredible band zone spilling out a barrage of west coast inspired classic rock tunes to a host of new ears. While the immaculate quality was identical to Shrewsbury, the band seemed a lot more relaxed with Taylor highly complimentary of the festival atmosphere and aura.

Birmingham band Goodnight Lenin elevated their status in my book from just a name to now a name with a sound, and a good one to that. They headlined the Lunar Stage on Sunday night in a seven piece format with the curious mix of three contrasting keyboard players. The resulting sound was very impressive and definitely in the style of contemporary Americana rock. The guys even had a bit of fun when inviting fellow Brummie artist Michael King from Boat to Row on stage to give a joyous version of ‘Dancing in the Dark’. The biggest compliment to pay to the band is that they outshone a certain ‘boyband’ from the distant past who followed them.

The deplorable situation of not seeing award winning folk duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker play live was corrected on Sunday afternoon when a dose of splendid melancholy was served in all its dark splendour. Mixing Gillian Welch and Sandy Denny covers with their own take on the sad song genre, described by Josienne as the ‘psycho ballad’, made for an obsessional enticing half hour. Ben’s exceptional acoustic guitar playing echoed the sounds from Josienne’s beautiful vocals and together we were invited to wallow in our misery. There was no hesitancy in adding this golden moment to the top ten and an essential fix for any folk festival.

While on the topic of beautiful voices, perhaps the stand out moment of the festival from this standpoint was the delightful set from Olivia Chaney on the main stage on Saturday afternoon. This is one remarkably talented lady who not only possesses a heavenly voice, but turns her hand majestically to piano, assorted guitars and harmonium. Attention was drawn to Olivia earlier this summer and discovering her debut album THE LONGEST RIVER. The promise from this finding has been fulfilled after seeing her play live and as a performer who just views herself as a genre free artist playing, singing and writing songs she takes a liking to, the future is set to be very prosperous for Olivia Chaney.

While championing many artists across the globe in this easily accessible virtual world, it is sometimes refreshing to support and promote a performer closer to home. As an aside to the two main stages at the Moseley Folk Festival, local roots venue the Kitchen Garden Café organised a smaller stage for local acts, strategically located to pull in fans on the way to the bar. Among the array of talent to frequent this stage across Saturday and Sunday was Stourbridge based folk outfit Kim Lowings and the Greenwood. More will be heard from Kim in the remainder of the year as she releases her new album HISTORIA. However she chose to use her half hour set to mainly sing a bunch of festival songs often inviting audience participation. The draw of the main two stages regretfully meant this part of the festival was only occasionally visited, but an opportunity to once again catch Kim and the guys sing live was too good to miss.

Two years ago The Cadbury Sisters played the Lunar Stage at an earlier time than their late afternoon Saturday slot this year. Over the course of this period, the family trio with the name defining heritage have evolved their sound from the acoustic side of folk to a more experimental indie fused output characterised by dark electric guitars and a thumping beat. There is a little bit of Sharon Van Etten to their new style and the resultant projected offering from the girls was rather appealing. The success of any festival appearance is provoking an audience response to further seek out the band’s recorded material and own shows. The Cadbury Sisters succeeded in achieving this.

On the back of an eclectic festival giving a stage to such Americana tinged bands as Dawes and Goodnight Lenin, the solid guitar driven groove sound of US act Houndstooth went down well with a fair few festival goers. Of course many purists may scoff at this sound taking precedence at a folk festival, but as was alluded by Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes recently that underneath all this electric amplification are just basic folk songs. There is also the little matter of a certain folk festival in Newport Rhode Island precisely half a century ago this year. Anyhow, Houndstooth played their part memorably and once again showed this festival as giving a brief slot to promote aspiring overseas acts.

Last but not least, and this is not in any particular order remember, it is impossible to ignore the ubiquitous presence of festival favourite Jim Moray and this time with his new band collaboration, False Lights. This project is the brainchild of Jim and Sam Carter with both sharing the limelight leading functions to unveil a plethora of folk songs in a more rocked up version than you normally associate with either artist. This fascinating set on the main stage during Saturday afternoon passed a mesmerising hour and made you appreciate just what fine musicianship was on show throughout the festival.

Just falling short of the top ten were Peacock Angell, Abi Budgen, Michael King’s solo slot on the main stage and a rolling back the years performance from folk icons Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. However the true winners were the seamless flow of great music and the festival inhabitants of the West Midlands who frequented this fine weekend in good numbers, blessed with the best weather September can offer. Finally apologies to any act missed off this review and to the festival for slyly sloping off to other gigs on the Friday and Saturday nights. A footnote and slight clue to the overall highlight is that they are from Northumberland and very, very good. 

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